First or Worst: a lesson in risk taking from the Scottish Rugby Team

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the weekend when the unfancied Scotland bettered their rugby playing counterparts from the south by 25 points to 13. This is a result worth noting because 1) it’s the first time Scotland have beaten England in 10 years, 2) it was the biggest winning margin for Scotland in 147 years, 3) essentially no-one expected them to win.

Now, rather than talk about the rugby (other than to say it was just great) it’s better to comment on the rich lessons for the corporate world. Namely;

You’d rather be first or worst; there are typically no silver medals in business. If you finish 2nd in a bid or a job interview etc. you are not unfortunately allowed to take a place on the podium beside the winner. In 15 years I have been involved in 57 losing bids each of which has taken long hours of my time and the emotional commitment of a whole team. Of those 57, we’ve finished 2nd about 30 times and on almost each occasion, you have the delight of sitting with the client for them to explain why you were runner up. I liken this to having your boyfriend/girlfriend end it with you over the phone and then shortly after meet up with you to explain why their new partner is better than you.

The Scottish rugby team have long inhabited a world where they come second. They get close to the other team but lose gallantly in the last 10 minutes. This has happened frequently enough so as to enter the lexicon e.g. it looks like we are going to get the contract as long as we don’t do a Scotland.

However, for the past year the team has added a new dimension to how they play noticeable for a much higher amount of risk. Sometimes it goes really well and sometimes it does not. Scotland beat Australia in Sydney and then lost the next game against Fiji, they started this year with an absolute ‘gubbing’ in Wales and then beat England.

In corporate terms, it’s like winning 2 big contracts and getting laughed at by the other two. This is nonetheless better than three second place finishes and a small win.

The application of this idea would perhaps allow you to consider an alternative view of what success looks like. From a customer perspective, being consistently good doesn’t necessarily mean that you get the most sales. You can risk one area to be very good in another. Customers don’t always buy the best product on average, they buy when they like something specific that’s important to them. Think about your partner, I’d be surprised if you love them for being a ‘good all rounder’.

Mercurial, maverick, maestros

One of Scotland’s best players is absolutely brilliant. He also makes mistakes sometimes which make you want to throw things at the television. Some of the time, this is because his brain is faster than everyone else which means people aren’t playing to his level but sometimes, he just makes a complete mess of it.

In the first game of the season, he had a bit of a nightmare which led to a lot of people shouting for his replacement. Fortunately, at the weekend he was the man of the match and was instrumental in Scotland’s win. Were he to have been replaced by someone more solid or dependable, it might be more consistent or predictable but it would have been unlikely to have been enough. When the competition is so good, do you risk being middle of the pack?

However, it’s often how we run performance reviews and assess people. You can be judged more for the depth of your mistakes rather than the heights of your successes. Discussions around promotions are commonly about giving reasons why someone ‘can’t be promoted’ rather than considering taking the risk. You will typically judge someone on their weakest point. I’ve been in sessions where someone who was really excellent was marked down on the basis of her admin as a Project Manager being ‘a bit loose’.

For your own careers, there is always a choice between middle of the road and maverick and all assessment tools in order to cover everybody usually end up forcing you towards the median. This is the difference between Finn Russell (the above mentioned player) being dropped after the first game and allowing Finn Russell to play and then win the game for the team on Saturday.

Even more interestingly, England’s best player (a young rascal called Owen Farrell) is getting a huge amount of criticism for his performance in missing tackles. In defeat, the discussion for England has focussed on what he did wrong. In the next game, does he play to avoid mistakes or does he play how he does best?

The danger of overcoaching; England are a great team with near unlimited resources to try new and innovative things. As an example, they flew the entire team from Georgia to England so that they could practice one aspect of the game in preparation for Scotland. They are hugely skilful, incredibly well trained and professional, and everyone knows exactly what they should be doing. They are in essence like an American football team where your role in the team is to follow orders according to the prepared move (and that’s it).

Scotland are a good team but they are not as good as England. What they were great at, was being flexible to changes. If something worked they did it again, if it didn’t they were quick to change. They had much smaller players than England so they tried to run around them rather than through them. They were a series of independent minds within the team who had the license to be more creative and imaginative than their English equivalents.

You can perhaps see where I am going with this. Scotland were an Agile business up against a large well structured incumbent. Even with the resources and skills, the fundamental culture and approach requires business in 2018 to be able to adapt to changes quickly and to take decisions independently. The coaching of the Scotland team isn’t to train them how to think necessarily, it’s to develop the system which allows the players to put that into practice. L&D needs to be focussed not just on what you do but how you do it, both individually and as a team.

In summary

  • Risks can be good if you can accept you might lose a few.
  • You need the mavericks in your team as much as the solid workers to get the best out the team.
  • You need to enable a culture where people are empowered to take those risks, and to be the mavericks.

Now, Scotland may well lose massively against Ireland in their next game. They might win the World Cup or go out in the first round against Japan. I will however be talking about the game on Saturday for years to come regardless of what happens next.

You can ask yourselves whether people will speak of you in the same way.

PS For any foreign readers, you are welcome to seek the match highlights to see the full glory of victory but here are some equivalents to help you out.

It would be like the Cleveland Browns scoring 3 touchdowns in the first quarter against the New England Patriots following three Tom Brady fumbles/interceptions

It would be like the Gold Coast Suns beating Richmond at the MCG by 50 points

It would be like Leicester City winning the Premier League (oh wait)

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